Friday, March 11, 2016

Growing Whiskers for the Owl Big Year

My latest owling expedition took me back to southeastern Arizona on the night of March 9th, 2016, where I would camp out at Bog Springs Campground and would stay half of the next day on March 10th exploring the Old Baldy Trail within the Santa Rita Mountains.  I was after a small owl that favors oak woodlands, and that owl has a restricted United States range that consists of southeastern Arizona and extreme southwestern New Mexico.  That bird is the Whiskered Screech-Owl, which is mainly a Mexican bird.  Because of it's limited range in the United States, the Whiskered Screech-Owl is highly sought after by birders visiting southeastern Arizona.  With that introduction out of the way, here is a picture from Bog Springs Campground.  I've gone camping many times in my life alone.  Every time I have gone camping alone I have either slept in my truck or in my truck bed.  This time, I finally set up a tent and stayed in a campground.  And that aspect of it turned out to be very fun.

After I got the tent and site set up, I took a short walk around the campground before I headed further up into Madera Canyon.  I was shocked to be greeted by this Cooper's Hawk, who sat only 20 feet off of the path that I was on!

A family of three people even walked by the Cooper's Hawk without even noticing him, and the Cooper's Hawk seemingly enjoyed this perch to the extent that it didn't even budge.  Madera Canyon is a beautiful place.  Birds were all over the grounds including Bridled Titmouse, Hutton's Vireo, Magnificent Hummingbird, Painted Redstart, Mexican Jay, Arizona Woodpecker, Yellow-eyed Junco, and more.  I enjoyed the beautiful Madera Canyon for two hours before it got dark out.  And most of Madera Canyon has great Whiskered Screech-Owl habitat...oak forests.

Once it was starting to get dark out, I heard a few Great Horned Owls calling back to each other, and a Northern "Mountain" Pygmy-Owl burst into a quick series of toot notes.  Once it got completely dark, the Whiskered Screech-Owls started to call.  In the world of North American Owls, this species is one of the neatest as far as vocalizations go.  The sound of the Whiskered Screech-Owl sounds like morse code, especially when a pair of these owls are dueting.  As I walked around in the woods by myself, I soon started to hear that awesome sound.  I took out my recorder, give this a listen...

Because Screech-Owls are cooperative for viewing in general, I quickly found a Whiskered Screech-Owl visually, who then cooperated for photographs.  Right then, it became my 12th owl for my North American Owl Big Year!  

This is a neat owl.  Visually, the Whiskered Screech-Owl may look very similar to a Western Screech-Owl, but there are several visual factors that help separate the two.

One is that the Whiskered Screech-Owl has short and thick dark streaks well spread throughout it's frontside that gives the species more of a heavy barred and "spotted look".

Another factor is the bill color on the bird.  While Western Screech-Owl has a dark blackish-bill, Whiskered Screech-Owl has a light gray to yellowish bill.

My favorite identification factor is that Whiskered Screech-Owl has much smaller talons than the Western Screech-Owl does.  The Western has huge feet, and the Whiskered Screech-Owl has noticeably small feet.  When Whiskered sits on a branch, it almost reminds me of how a Rough-legged Hawk utilizes branches.

With these factors mentioned, Screech Owl visuals aren't that hard to separate after all.  Also, if the two species happened to hang out together, the Western would probably look a lot bigger.  The Western Screech-Owl is 8.5 inches in length and the Whiskered Screech-Owl is 7.25 inches in length.  Want to see a quick comparison?  Here is a Whiskered:

And here is a Western:

In the two above pictures, look at the bill color, the streaking, and the sizes of the feet.  And of course, the two species sound entirely different while vocalizing.  In these oak woods where Whiskered Screech-Owls are found, they are usually located in higher elevation than Western Screech-Owls, although some Western Screech-Owls will be in similar habitats at times.

The more I spent Whiskered Screech-Owling over the next four hours, the funner things got.   I owled the Madera Canyon Amphitheater area, the Madera Canyon Picnic Area and road near the picnic area, the entrance road to Bog Springs Campground, and finally, Bog Springs Campground itself.  The night was filled with these small owls, as I tallied 15 Whiskered Screech-Owls in total over these four locations.  And those who have birded Madera know that these locations are very very close to each other.  There are many Whiskered Screech-Owls in the Santa Ritas!  This is a bird I have only seen twice prior to this night, so it was more fun combined with all of the previous encounters I have ever had with this species.  Here is a series of photographs I took of many different Whiskered Screech-Owls that I tracked down during the night.  

As I made my way into my tent and got some sleep, I woke up at times during the night.  Those times of waking up weren't without further morse-code and tooting calls of the Whiskered Screech-Owl near my camp.  What a cool little owl, and what a fun night.  

A note on my owl photography:  At night, when I photograph owls, I do not use a flash.  To be honest, I hate flash photography and I don't think it brings out a natural look in photos.  I do have a powerful flashlight, and at that, I do not put the flashlight directly on owls for any long period of time.  I may do it for a few seconds and I then take it right off.  The best results I have are by shining the light up in the owls direction and placing the light near the owl, but not right on the owl.  When I do this, I turn my ISO up on my camera and snap away.  With this result, the pictures look more "night-like and owl-like" in my opinion.  When lights aren't directly shining on the owl source, it seems as if the owls themselves become more candid and less aware the birder is standing right there.  Constant shining on the subject is not a good idea, and it should be limited.  Give it a few seconds of brightness at most between intervals of having direct light placed away from the owl subject.  

On the following day, March 10, I woke up and hung around the campsite during the earlier hours.  That was then followed by a steep, three mile climb up into the Santa Ritas towards Mount Wrightson on the Old Baldy Trail.  I made it past Josephine Saddle and was close to the Old Baldy Saddle.  I have never been up this far in these mountains despite many visits to Madera Canyon over the years.  This seems to be a spectacular area, and is one I need to bird and explore more.  Here are a few pictures of the scenes.

Over the years, I haven't had much on the caffeine way of things.  But wow, it sure wakes you up.  Perhaps it would've saved me from being a grouch on many birding trips with friends (sorry guys).  But now, I've found a new addiction..Dr. Pepper.  I forgot how much I love this stuff.  Long story short, it keeps me awake on these crazy owling trips.  Thank you Dr. Pepper..

With 12 owls down, I have 7 slots to fill.  Some are easy, some are challenging, some are tough, and some are going to be a downright pain-in-the-butt!  I'm ready to keep the challenge going, and will take a few weeks off to rest from this Big Year crap.  In the meantime, here's my 12 owls so far, from first to most recent.  Of course in terms of this Big Year, the owl has to be seen and photographed to count towards the goal.  Owl on!


  1. Dang, Tommy, your a freaking owling beast! Very nice post and photos. You're killing me!

  2. 15 Whiskers in one night has to be a state record! Caleb and I will probably be attending the AZ Young Birder's Camp in June; hopefully we'll discover a few! I cracked up when I read your paragraph on the wonders of Dr. Pepper! Its my favorite soda and I often have one before I go birding. Keeps the eyes and ears alert, right?

    1. I think one could definitely get more Whiskers in a night, Josh. These guys are numerous in Madera Canyon, and there was a ton of good habitat that I didn't even cover. Perhaps you and Caleb and break my 15 at Young Birder's Camp. That is cool you guys are going. Dr. Pepper is a soda saint...

  3. Your are blitzing toward your goal, Tommy! The numbers of Whiskereds you saw is incredible; what a fun night in Madera! This post was a very enjoyable read and makes me wish I could go birding there right now. What do you think my chances are for this bird in October?

    1. Thanks Josh! I had a blast with the Whiskereds, and I've never taken a lot of time prior to this trip on observing them. In October I think we'll be having awesome looks at this bird..

  4. Red Bull gives you wings, Dr. Pepper gives you birds with wings (two in one!). I think I might start drinking Dr. Pepper from now on ;)

    1. Once you start there's no turning back! Side effects include hearing faint bird songs from the day's travels over and over in your head as you try to fall asleep. 😜

    2. You should Caleb, it would be a good switch. Plus, you don't want to be drinking Coke while Josh and I are drinking Dr. Pepper, right?..

      As Josh said, there's no turning back. Side effects aside, it makes you an even better birder..